We all know and get told that good nutrition and eating a well-balanced diet promotes good health. However it is extremely important to understand that the food you eat everyday can be affecting your mental health. Not only can the food we eat affect our mood but our mood may also influence the foods we choose. This then leads to a vicious cycle.
Do you reach for a second cookie?
I think the majority of us can say that when we have felt down, stressed, tired or even happy you have reached for a sugary snack. We hope the donut or delicious brownie will make us feel better and give us a quick pick me up. In short it will and yes it will probably be the tastiest snack you have ever put in your mouth. BUT this then results in a worse crash an hour later – due to the rise in our blood sugar levels. So what do we do to counteract that crash? We reach for another cookie! Come on… we have all been there… Right?! These crashes simply play with our emotions, our moods, our overall well-being and genuinely make us ‘hangry’. I don’t know about you guys but when I’m hangry I am a beast! Good nutrition is key!! What we eat truly can have a direct effect on our mental health.
Be mindful of what you put into your body
I am a firm believer of ‘everything in moderation’ and yes I honour my cravings. I am however, so mindful of what I honour them with. Especially around that dreaded time of the month! Sorry boys that came without a warning! But this is purely so that I am not on an emotional and hormonal rollercoaster throughout the day. Trust me when I say I do not need any added spices thrown into my mood and hormonal mix! Poor nutrition can only add to issues you already have or even worse create them. Nourishing our bodies with the right foods, minerals and vitamins along with eating regularly can manage a plethora of things.
Eating functional nutritional foods can help with:
- Panic attacks
- Unexplained irritability
- Concentration levels
The nitty gritty about nutrition and mental health….
So here is where we go into the nitty gritty of why and how it can affect our mental health. Stay with me it’s fun I promise!! Without the proper nutrients, our bodies cannot produce the appropriate chemicals and hormones required for clarity and a healthy mood.
Nutrient dense foods work together to cause our brains to produce serotonin (our feel-good hormone). Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries signals to regulate many different bodily functions and linked to improve a whole bunch of stuff. Your mood, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep, bowel functions (yes pooping – which leads to a healthier gut,) and it can also boost your libido. See I told you it would get fun!! Too little serotonin in your body can have a negative impact on your mood.
“Where the hell do I sign up?” I hear you scream! Well stay with me and I will explain how.
You can’t get serotonin directly from food it is made in the brain from amino acid tryptophan alongside B6, B12 and folic acid. Take your vitamin B supplements – SO important! Especially for my fellow vegans out there. In addition to supplementing eat whole grains, lean proteins, eggs, and foods rich in omega-3.
Dopamine again is a neurotransmitter very similar to serotonin however this is the pleasure and motivator chemical. Diets that are high in sugar and saturated fats (sorry guys this means all the ‘good’ stuff) can suppress dopamine. Making us tired, demotivated, moody, anxious, depressed, unable to focus, feel hopeless, and to the extremes of feeling suicidal.
Vitamin D, magnesium and omega-3 is what you need to pay attention to. I would definitely recommend supplementing with these and a good probiotic. In addition to this up your intake of protein, nuts, veggies, fruit and dark chocolate (yay!).
Cortisol is our stress hormone. Over time high cortisol levels can affect moods, irritability and sex drive. Nobody needs any of that!! If your cortisol levels are too low it can make you tired, dizzy and moody. Again nobody wants that! We have to meet somewhere in the middle and keep our levels stable. So imagine you are sat right in the middle of a see-saw. Eating a healthy balanced diet and keeping your sugar intake low is where you want to be! Now put down that Curly Wurly!
Do you believe me now when I say nutrition can be used to improve mental health?!
Enough of the scientific jargon, tell me what to eat!
Ok, ok! Diets based on whole foods and a variety of food groups, mentioned above, is key for a balanced state of mind. But what on earth should we eat if a cupcake is a no no? Let me repeat myself first – of course you can have a cupcake. Just not everyday if you struggle with any of the above problems! Good nutrition really is healthy for the mind and body. Vegetables (FYI sprouts are not welcome in my world), fruits, legumes, proteins and healthy fats are a great starting point! Foods that ‘feed your body’ should most definitely be your new mantra after reading this.
Don’t make me go vegan!!
So, I am a vegan (again, stay with me – PLEASE). I’m extremely mindful of what goes in my mouth and I liken my everyday eating as eating the rainbow. Cute right? This is mainly so that I can try and stem away from the old ‘rabbit food’ stigma! In all seriousness though, if my plate looks like the rainbow it is good to go! Does a plate of salad and vegetables excite me? Yes. Does good nutrition excite me? YES! Mother nature’s multivitamin is what really gets me going!!
Now the good news is I am not here to tell you to go vegan. Although I would love you forever if you did! But I am here to tell you firstly fats and carbs are NOT bad!!! NOW I know I have got your attention! I still get so upset with people eating low fat / any fad diet. Or that the huge diet organisations are out there telling people that avocados are worse than eating instant noodles. It is absolutely ludicrous!
So let me break down the nutrition side of things for you:
When I say that protein is THE daddy of the food groups and nutrition I really mean it!! I cannot stress enough to you that you will feel so much better if you up your protein intake. This for me was a really big turning point in my life, diet and training. No girls more protein does not mean you are going to look like Arnie Schwarzenegger. What it does mean is that you will feel fuller for longer, have more energy and stop the sugar cravings. Protein contains the amino acids that are key for the neurotransmitters. As I mentioned above these key factors in nutrition help with depression and anxiety. I aim to eat a protein packed meal or snack every 3-4 hours so that I am always on top of my blood sugar levels. When eating protein opt for fish, chicken, turkey, lean beef, eggs, organic tofu and organic tempeh.
People have avoided fats for years. This upsets me. Especially any females out there doing low fat diets thinking it’s the best way to go for nutrition and weight loss. Unfortunately I was a huge offender of this.
I joined a weight loss club during university (I shall name no names but I’m sure you know the type I’m talking about). Aside from the weight loss factor and above everything else it really damaged my mental health. They genuinely made me scared to eat an avocado or even a teaspoon of olive oil. An avocado was apparently worse than eating a ‘mug shot’. A highly processed snack with absolutely no nutritional value at all. CRAZY!! Funny that pretty much everything I learnt in those groups went against proper nutrition.
We need good healthy fats to build hormones – especially us females. Fats are also essential for energy, absorbing nutrients, supporting cell growth and keeping us warm!! Think healthy fats like avocados, nuts, oils (coconut/olive/avocado), seeds and oily fish.
Yes veggies, veggies and even more veggies – I will try and make them desirable for you! (Note to self – insert image of an aubergine). It is so easy when we are tired or down to opt for anything other than veggies. But this will only makes things worse. Any vegetable is good for me but I want you to be thinking dark green leafy greens too. Carrots, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers and cauliflower is what you are putting straight in your basket!
Guess what? It’s ok to eat more than one banana!!! How crazy is that! Again guys fruit is GOOD! Another food group I used to be scared of! I would opt for any of the berry family, apples, avocados (yes its a fruit), bananas, citrus fruits, Medjool dates! The list is endless! Fruit is natures candy – whats not to love?!
Yes beans are the musical fruit but they are so good for a happy and healthy brain. I’m not talking about the Heinz baked beans variety (fine but be mindful of the sugar). I’m talking about chickpeas, lentils, butter beans, kidney beans, pinto beans etc. They might make you toot but they are full of fibre and keep you fuller for longer. This means they will keep your blood sugar levels stable which I am hoping you now know is great for your mental health.
I am a HUGE believer in carbs. I eat them with pretty much every meal, everyday. My love for porridge is on another level. Carbs help get serotonin going! Unfortunately I do not mean, crisps, fries and all the processed stuff. I mean whole grain foods like quinoa, oats, brown rice, sweet potato, butternut squash
Who are the bad guys of nutrition?
- Sugar – trust me when I say sugar is the devil. Yummy? yes. Does horrific things to your body? Absolutely. Fizzy drinks, sweets, chocolate, biscuits – everything and anything in the your old school candy shop is a no. Dark chocolate containing over 70% cocoa is great. It is actually loaded with minerals and antioxidants. Sadly this does not mean go and eat a whole bar! So be mindful!!
- Alcohol – I know, I know, I’m sorry. Everything in moderation though. I enjoy red wine and the occasional vodka shot but again I am mindful of how much I drink especially around my period.
- Bad fats – Carbs are only bad when they are full of trans fat. Unfortunately you may have to think twice about that Wotsit or curly fry that might be currently entering your mouth. Trans fats are what spike blood sugar levels. So deep fat fried and processed foods are a big no no. Seriously, having a diet heavy in these it will have a big impact on your mental health.
I read something the other day where it likened drinking water to watering a plant. I absolutely love this! Plants need water to grow and it is just important for us humans! To function properly aim to drink 2-3 litres a day. I actually really struggle to keep my plants alive but you better believe I am getting those litres in!! I start every single morning off with a hot water and lemon. This is great for your digestion, skin and gives you a boost instead of relying on caffeine. Give it a try!!
Trying to sleep if you are an offender of bad nutrition
I have mentioned tiredness and fatigue a few times so I wanted to touch on sleep briefly. The foods we eat can have a serious impact on sleep. Which then has a serious impact on our moods and mental health. The two really come hand in hand. Back in the day I never really understood this. But eating sugar, bad carbs, bad fats, caffeine and alcohol are all going to mess with your sleeping patterns. I for one have had a few bottles of wine too many and it knocks you out to start with. Then 3/4am comes knocking when your liver is working hard to detox what you have done to it! So if you know that tiredness is a problem for you maybe look at what you are consuming before bedtime. It would be a good place to start.
To sum it up I am obsessed with good nutrition!
Good nutrition and a well-balanced diet plays a huge role in your mental health. Life can take a toll on you and it is really easy to get bogged down and end up in a bad nutritional routine. A healthy mind and body is so important when it comes to dealing with mental health issues. Let me also stress that eating well and focussing on your nutrition does not mean it will treat or cure any mental health issues. But used in conjunction with other behavioural changes it can be part of a holistic approach to dealing with mood disorders. Boost your mental health by caring about your nutrition!
If there is one thing to take from all of this I think this is the simplest thing to remember… “I have to honour my mind and body if I want to sustain this journey.” – Rupi Kaur
Sophie Pate is a qualified nutritionist, writer and blogger. She can be found on Instagram @TheVeganMacroGirl where she promotes high protein, and more importantly, delicious vegan food ideas. We asked Sophie to write a guest blog for us this month as we’re passionate about exploring practical and helpful ways in which you can improve your own mental health, and I think you’ll agree that the result is a fantastically useful and interesting article.